Thursday, August 22, 2013

Three Dimensions of Disagreement about Emotional Experience

William James's view of emotion is famous. Its most famous feature is his claim that emotional experience is entirely bodily:

If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind... and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains.... What kind of an emotion of fear would be left, if the feelings neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible to think. Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations, and the only thing that can possibly be supposed to take its place is some cold-blooded and dispassionate judicial sentence, confined entirely to the intellectual realm, to the effect that a certain person or persons merit chastisement for their sins (1890/1950, vol. 2, p. 451-2).
Two other features are less commonly noted. One is that emotional experience is ever-present in rich detail:
Every one of the bodily changes, whosoever it be, is felt, acutely or obscurely, the moment it occurs. If the reader has never paid attention to this matter, he will be both interested and astonished to learn how many different local bodily feelings he can detect in himself as characteristic of his various emotional moods.... Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him (p. 451).
Another is that emotional experience is highly variable:
We should, moreover, find that our descriptions had no absolute truth; that they only applied to the average man; that every one of us, almost, has some personal idiosyncrasy of expression, laughing or sobbing differently from his neighbor, or reddening or growing pale where others do not.... The internal shadings of emotional feeling, moreover, merge endlessly into each other. Language has discriminated some of them, as hatred, antipathy, animosity, dislike, aversion, malice, spite, vengefulness, abhorrence, etc., etc.; but in the dictionaries of synonyms we find these feelings distinguished more by their severally appropriate objective stimuli than by their conscious or subjective tone (p. 447-448).
Disagreement continues, about all three issues.

Some scholars, such as Walter Cannon and Peter Goldie have argued that bodily sensations cannot possibly exhaust emotional experience; but others, such as Antonio Damasio and Jesse Prinz, have defended accounts of emotion that are broadly Jamesian in this respect.

Some scholars, such as John Searle (p. 140) have argued that we have ever-present emotional mood experiences even if they are often fairly neutral, while others, such as Russell Hurlburt and Chris Heavey, have argued that such feeling experiences are only present about 25% of the time on average. (This issue is a dimension of the larger question of how sparse or abundant human conscious experience is in general -- a question I have argued is methodologically fraught.)

I have seen less explicit discussion of how much variability there is in emotional experience between people, but some theories seem to imply that similar emotions will tend to have similar experiential cores: Keith Oatley and P.N. Johnson-Laird, for example, seem to think that each type of emotion -- e.g., anxiety, anger, disgust -- has a "distinctive phenomenological tone" (p. 34); and Goldie, while in some places emphasizing the complex variability of emotion, in other places (as in the article linked above), seems to imply that there's a distinctive qualitative character that an emotion like fear has which one cannot know unless one has experienced that emotion type. Hurlburt, in contrast, holds that people's emotional experiences are highly variable with no common core among them (e.g., here, p. 187, Box 8.8).

For all the work on emotion that has been done in the past 120 years, we are still pretty far, I think, from reaching a well-justified consensus opinion on these questions. Such is the enduring infancy of consciousness studies.


Martin said...

Not sure if I'm misunderstanding William James, but I strongly disagree. If someone sneaked up on me and poisoned me, instantly paralyzing my entire body into a stable, immobile resting state, I'm pretty sure that I'd still feel strong surprise, anger, desperation and sadness, in roughly that order.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

James would have to disagree. In fact, he's pretty explicit about it. Cannon 1927 is the classic objection to James along these lines. I incline somewhat against James, but there are countermoves available, such as noting that most cases of anesthesia aren't total and that paralysis doesn't affect the heart and -- for less purist versions of broadly Jamesian views -- that the brain's motor output plans and bodily representations might be where some of the action is, even if those plans can't be executed by the body.

Lucian J, Hudson said...

When speaking of emotional intelligence, three components are usually identified: being able to identify an emotion, express it and make use of it. This provides some insight into where emotions "reside": there is clearily an embodied dimension to them, but there is also sense-making, and meaning-making. Language and symbolisation give expression and shape to the emotions we have, and in so doing qualify the emotional content of experience. For instance, what exactly is happening when pain is experienced as pleasure (or vice versa). Is it a mingling of felt experience, sense-making and meaning-making?

David Duffy said...

It seemed to me that the effects of beta-blockade for fear or anxiety are one test of this. Unfortunately they do have central effects on laying down of memory as well reducing bodily correlates of anxiety such as heart and salivary flow rate.

do say that propranolol manipulation during (an anxiety provoking) memory retrieval did not affect the reported state anxiety

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

David: Thanks for that comment and link. I agree that that sort of thing is relevant to the Jamesian thesis -- though a perfectly clean test seems unlikely, especially if one does the neo-Jamesian move of including motor intentions and/or the efferent copy as bodily enough, and not only input from bodily states.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Lucian: I am inclined to agree with a multi-faceted picture of the sort you describe. A Jamesian might regard the meaning-making as a cause or consequence of the true emotional experience, or regard it as part of the emotion but not part of the *phenomenal experience* of the emotion.